Listening to the Heart of a Woman

Peg Johnston

Listening to a woman talk about her decision makes the public abortion debate seem irrelevant. A discourse that embodied women's experiences would change the abortion debate and help women who are isolated in their decision-making.

If the proverbial Martians were to come to Earth, and specifically to the United States, they would naturally be interested in the dominant conflicts on the planet as the best way to learn about us. When they got to the abortion conflict, they would be perplexed that the most impassioned partisans were not those who personally decided to have or not have an abortion. And there’s a lot to learn about that observation.

What is missing in the abortion debate, including the Common Ground discussion, are the women themselves who have had abortions, or for that matter, who decided to parent or make an adoption plan.  You would expect that patients who identified as pro choice would choose abortion as needed without a lot of conflict. You would think that those women who were against abortion wouldn’t have one. You would be wrong on both counts.

When you sit with women on a daily basis as I, and most abortion care workers, do, you will soon learn that “until you understand the heart of a woman, nothing about abortion makes any sense at all.” Dr. George Tiller taught us that mantra, which is why he was so beloved by our community. A day or two listening to women talk about their decisions will make everything about the public abortion debate seem completely irrelevant.

Take Catherine (not her real name) who wrote on her chart last week: “Yes (it was a difficult decision) because it is wrong.” You might think Catherine was in the wrong place, but what I heard when I listened closely was a complex, thoughtful decision that considered her family and the needs of each of her kids, the financial prospects for her and her husband, and how she might feel about her choice later on, just for starters. I was so impressed with her process that progressed from a simplistic worldview of right/wrong to a more nuanced, ‘what’s right for me and my family?’ I also witnessed her courage in facing down the long held, but unexamined beliefs she had learned from her family. Still, she would not talk to them about her decision, physically recoiling at just the thought of it.

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In this she is not alone. “What does it take to silence 45 million women?” many of us have asked. We know that the 30+ year campaign to stigmatize abortion is working remarkably well. It’s what keeps a woman from talking to her best friend, her husband, her doctor, or her minister. It doesn’t change people’s minds; rather, it’s how they are silenced. So, no wonder no one gets to really understand why more than1 million women every year choose to terminate their pregnancies! Imagine if there was only one story about divorce—instead of knowing women who were relieved to move on, traumatized for a long time, or should have gotten a divorce earlier, we only hear about the adulterer.

The problem is that only a few of us hear these incredible stories of people’s real lives. Aside from the mental health implications of stigmatizing a life event that 45 million people share, the silencing of the abortion experience has distorted the debate. Recently conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan acknowledged that women’s stories, written as comments on Dr. Tiller’s murder, changed how he viewed the issue. “Some of these situations are really tragic,” he said. “Duh,” we said in unison.

Even more tragically, there are very few opportunities to hear, really hear, women’s experiences of abortion, or indeed, their experience of unintended pregnancy and decision-making. Abortion care workers (and I include those who help women at abortion funds, family planning clinics, talklines etc) are like priests in a confessional. The public can sometimes listen into the stories they hear at blogs like abortionclinicdays.com or the abortioneers, but there are not many opportunities to hear more than partisan sound bites. A pregnancy decision is so rich with multiple layers of feeling, concerns, and ethics that it is a shame that the public can’t access them. A discourse that embodied these experiences would completely change the abortion debate and would significantly help women who are isolated in their decision-making.

Imagine if women were invited to use existing online public engagement technology so that our deeply conflicted society can try to understand the “heart of a woman.” So that this doesn’t turn into which side can log in faster to a FOX poll, the process would be designed to tease out the most complete story. A scientifically designed survey would invite women who have had an abortion to answer questions as well as to contribute a narrative about the significance of the abortion decision or experience in their lives. These questions would encourage reflection on various aspects of the abortion decision, such as the needs of children, her or her partner’s readiness for parenting, her concerns about the impact of a child on her relationship with partner or family, financial issues, educational goals, religious or spiritual beliefs, support, or lack thereof, for the woman’s moral agency, and societal attitudes toward various pregnancy outcomes (abortion, adoption, single parenthood, etc.)  

A content analysis would identify important themes. This qualitative approach is not a battle of numbers but will allow everyone to understand the range of factors in the decision making process as well as barriers to each option a woman considers. Instead of opinions we will be soliciting experiences.

Those who are making policy about funding, state mandated waiting periods, and other restrictions might just gain perspective from women themselves about what was helpful and what might have been more useful to them in their decision-making. For instance, what kinds of support would have contributed to their emotional health? What information would have been helpful? Were state and federal laws a help or a hindrance? What presentation of risk factors most often leads to negative mental health outcomes? What is the impact of the societal stigma placed on abortion in terms of healthy outcomes? What are the special needs of young women, those experiencing domestic violence, or those with other identified risk factors such as prior emotional conditions?

Just as any visiting Martian can tell you, the solution to the conflict does not come from the partisans on either side. It comes from the truths of the people who are living with the consequences of public policy. When women’s experiences, not just bumper sticker slogans, are part of the debate then—and only then– will common ground make any sense at all.

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